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Met Simulcast: The First Emperor

Tan Dun and Zhang Yimou speak about The First Emperor

See also this portfolio of Ken Howard's beautiful photographs of the production
Peter Gelb has done a good thing with the simulcasts of live performances from the Metropolitan Opera. If the large numbers of people willing to shell out $18 for a movie ticket -- for the maiden broadcast of The Magic Flute, theaters were filled to 91% of capacity -- are any indication, there is a niche market for opera out there. But seriously, what will it take to get these broadcasts on PBS? This seems to me to be an obvious part of public television's supposed duty to broadcast cultural programming. (Network television is just a pipe dream.) People who may not be able to go the movie theater, either because of timing or cost, would benefit. Most of all, television would make it possible for a viewer, even a kid, to happen upon live opera by chance. No one going to the movie theater to see Happy Feet or whatever is going to think, "Maybe I will pay twice as much to see that opera."

Since I did not make it up to New York to see Tan Dun's new opera, The First Emperor, I was at the simulcast on January 13. Critics have largely judged the opera a failure, but the Met has sold out all performances. Audiences seem to be pleased, although the applause at the matinee was polite but restrained. Now that I have heard and seen it for myself, I think that the nay voices have it right.

The story should be epic, since the title character is Qin Shihuang, the warlord who created the first Chinese imperial dynasty and from whose name we get the country's name, China. The libretto (by the composer and novelist Ha Jin), however, focuses on Qin's obsession with a piece of music he wants composed. The story has been adapted from a movie called The Emperor's Shadow (1996), directed by Zhou Xiaowen on a screenplay by Lu Wei. It is not derived from historical sources but is a sort of historical fiction. The results make the story a little silly, which registered in the audience's laughter every time Qin mentioned his imperial anthem.

The score has some weak points, unfortunately enough of them to outweigh the exciting sounds Tan Dun brings together. As Lisa Hirsch noted in her extensive and perceptive comments on the opera, the major mistake was in the many sections that sounded grossly derivative of Puccini. At one point, I actually thought the orchestra might break into a rousing finale of "Nessun dorma." Several scenes drag on far too long, long after the listener gets the idea. If the creative team has the chance to revisit the opera, with the serious intention of revising it, before the production in Los Angeles, it could be possible to save The First Emperor.

Brian of Out West Arts noted this weekend the two main advantages of seeing the simulcast. First, the choice of shots is excellent, with views of the sets and backstage area close up, including watching the singers coming off the stage or preparing for curtain calls. Theater viewers do not have the effect of hearing the sound in that cavernous house (although we could clearly hear the backstage prompter feeding forgotten lines to Domingo -- I counted three), but we have closeups of the singers, conductor (Tan Dun is an expressive man), and even members of the orchestra (watching them shout the words in the score, sometimes confusing which word to shout, was a stitch). Second, the intermission features are excellent, especially when the host is Beverly Sills. As I said in a post about the recent PBS documentary on Sills, Bubbles has always been a very funny lady.

Remaining Met simulcasts this season include Eugene Onegin (February 24), The Barber of Seville (March 24), and Il Trittico (April 28). All simulcasts begin at 1:30 pm (NB: time is Eastern time zone). Due to popular demand, there will be a rebroadcast of The Magic Flute this evening (January 23, 7:30 pm). Because that will be from the recorded feed, it will take place at that time in all American time zones.

As if in answer to my prayer, reader Garth Trinkl informs us (in the comments) that PBS will be broadcasting the Julie Taymor Magic Flute (in English). In Washington, you can watch it on WETA TV (Channel 26) on Wednesday night (January 24, 9 pm), with a repeat if your DVR goes awry early Sunday morning (January 28, 3 am). Bravo, PBS!


Garth Trinkl said...

WETA-TV itself will be broadcasting the MET's abbreviated version of The Magic Flute tomorrow night, January, 24 at 9 PM. Tonight there is also a Sirius Radio live transmission of La Traviata from the MET stage.

Garth Trinkl said...

Charles, sorry to chime in again here so soon, but I wanted to make sure that you were aware that PBS and the MET plan six monthly televised broadcasts of operas between now and June. These operas will be broadcast on PBS (and in HD) after they have been broadcast live to movie theaters in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Japan (delayed basis). Toll Brothers is behind the venture.


jfl said...

P.S. even at the MET can you hear the the prompter (or at least hear/see Domingo waiting for the lines and/or bungling lines). :) If you only heard three occasions, he studied between the two performances we saw.